Making a VOIP phone choice

February 12, 2004|By Tamara Chuang | Tamara Chuang,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VOIP, is the next hot telephone technology, and Vonage is the leading provider of VOIP for consumers.

But there are a few things to think about - both good and bad - before taking the plunge.

Reasons to wait

A few reasons to hold off, or at least think twice, include:

A VOIP phone's sound quality can be inconsistent; on some days it can sound worse than a cell phone. But most of the time, it sounds like an ordinary phone.

If you don't have a high-speed Internet connection, VOIP isn't for you. You need the speed for satisfactory service.

Depending on the VOIP provider, you may not get full 911 service. Your phone number is linked to an Internet address, not a physical address, so the 911 operator may not know where you are calling from. However, Vonage recently added 911 support by letting customers assign a physical address to a phone number, even an out-of-state number, so that your physical location will be on record.

Setup isn't too difficult, but it's not a snap. Presumably you'll want to keep your computer connected to its high-speed Internet modem, which means you'll need a router to share the Internet between VOIP and one or more computers. And a router isn't always a user-friendly device. But Vonage recently introduced a phone adapter with a built-in router.

VOIP doesn't support TiVo, which relies on a phone connection to update information. However, you can get around this if you add an Ethernet adapter to TiVo.

Vonage's phone adapter has jacks for two phones. If you want to add more, you'll need a phone-line splitter. To add a phone to another room, it's easiest to buy a cordless phone system with more than one base station. People with the expertise can turn off the electricity to the home's existing telephone lines, then plug in the Vonage wire to any traditional phone jack and make Vonage calls on any home telephone.

More service options are on the way, possibly from cable TV and regular phone providers.

If you cancel, Vonage charges a $40 disconnect fee.

Reasons to sign up

Even so, several factors make VOIP service attractive:

Vonage offers three pricing levels, ranging from $14.99 to $34.99 a month (for unlimited long-distance calls). Competitor Packet8 has a $19.95 unlimited plan. Perks for both services include call waiting, caller ID, voice mail and online account management.

You can usually keep your existing telephone number, or pick the area code you want.

You can add multiple phone numbers. Vonage charges $5 per month for extra numbers, which can include an 800 number or another area code, so friends and family can call without paying long-distance fees.

When you move, you can keep the same number.

When traveling, you can plug the VOIP adapter into the nearest high-speed Internet connection and a telephone to continue receiving calls.

You can call VOIP users on the same network for free.

International calling is also an option. Packet8 has added international plans ($50 a month for unlimited calls to Asia), while Vonage charges as little as 5 cents a minute to Singapore, Sweden and Spain.

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